Unique Program Combats Compassion Fatigue to Improve Patient Care

An extremely large proportion of intense experiences—birth, death, trauma, dire illnesses, dramatic procedures—occur at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. The health care staff is on the front lines of these experiences, which can lead to compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is described as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional pain. Compassion fatigue is a form of traumatic stress that can cause feelings of inadequacy as a caregiver, the inability to let go of work-related issues, loss of hope, lack of energy and irritability. It also can cause caregivers to become less empathetic and less engaged with patients.

In 2009, because of concern about compassion fatigue, three nurse managers from oncology units at Barnes-Jewish approached Patricia Potter, RN, PhD, director of research for patient care services, and Teresa DeShields, PhD, manager of psycho-oncology services. Potter and DeShields conducted a survey of staff on the oncology units and found that burnout and secondary traumatic stress were high enough to warrant intervention to help caregivers and patients.

“Secondary traumatic stress comes from caring for people who are experiencing trauma,” Potter says. “Repeated exposure to patients’ loss, pain and suffering can lead to similar feelings in the care providers.”

As a result of the survey findings, The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital funded a successful pilot program in 2010 for oncology nurses to combat compassion fatigue and stress. Soon, staff in the emergency department and intensive care units began attending compassion fatigue classes. In 2011, The Foundation funded an initiative to roll out the Compassion Fatigue Resiliency Program to all hospital employees—with a recognition that even if employees are not giving direct clinical care or treatment, they still may be involved in caring for the hospital’s patients, and are vulnerable to the cost of caring.

Unique in the United States, the program was developed specifically for Barnes-Jewish by Eric Gentry, PhD, a certified traumatologist and pioneer in the field of compassion fatigue. Through the Compassion Fatigue Resiliency Program, the health care staff learns skills to recognize signs and to prevent compassion fatigue.

“It helps remind caregivers that they’re doing this to relieve patient suffering, or to give hope,” says Cheryl Palmer, manager of spiritual care services at Barnes-Jewish. “Being able to help patients through stressful times, to help them recover, to comfort their family, to changes lives and to witness people’s lives being changed can be immensely moving and fulfilling. It’s more than a job. It’s a calling for some people to work in health care.”

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